Amidst all of the hope and elation of our sanction reductions (more to come), this week’s article will focus back on the field. And this week, my usually cheery self has a bone to pick.
The most maddening playcalling I can ever remember as a Penn State fan was the 2007 game at Michigan State. The Spartans were just starting to grow into the perennial top-30 team that they are today, and they took a narrow lead on Penn State late in the game. Penn State took the ensuing kickoff and rushed down the field quite easily (even with a backup, converted running back) to about the Spartan 25.
And then, Penn State decided to throw. Four straight balls. Four straight incompletions. Game over. MSU 35, PSU 31.
My theory on that playcalling—de facto offensive coordinator Jay Paterno wanted to send out senior quarterback Anthony Morelli a hero.
Saturday’s mid-game playcalling sure seemed reminiscent of that mentality. It seemed like O’Brien wanted to dial up an eye-grabbing stat line for freshman phenom Christian Hackenberg. And as Hack struggled, he only increased the emphasis on him, perhaps to recover the precipitously dipping QB rating.
On Saturday against Kent State, the playcalling didn’t really matter a lot. But I hope Coach O’Brien has learned something from his out of conference offensive approaches.
My two takeaways: the rushing game needs to lead this offense—not the young Hackenberg—and Akeel Lynch needs to be the feature back.
First off, Christian Hackenberg has all the tools, and I’m not piling on the kid because he had an off day. Especially not on a disgusting wet afternoon. I love the kid. But he’s not Tom Brady this year. He’s not even Matt McGloin this year. He’s a freshman with nice pieces all around him. Those pieces need to create the identity of the offense—not the arm of Hackenberg.
Secondly, Penn State has three uniquely different backs. If our offensive line were as good as last year, power back, quasi-fullback Zack Zwinak would be the perfect No. 1 guy. And a two-back set where Zwinak can offer extra blitz-protection for Hackenberg might be a way to keep Zack on the field. Bill Belton—who first made his mark for PSU as a wildcat quarterback—is a great all-purpose back. His beautiful catch-and-turn TD on Saturday was the perfect example of Belton’s strength. Packages for Belton should certainly be incorporated into the offense.
But Akeel Lynch (his soggy fumble aside) is the best running back on this roster. O’Brien has give everyone enough looks in meaningful time to easily see that Lynch is the guy.
Kudos to the PSU defense for the shutout (and may Mike Hull have restful and therapeutic week off), but I still feel that the offense is going to be the key to the season. Last year’s metamorphosis gives me reason to believe that O’Brien can learn from what he saw in the first month of the season and turn this team into another 8 or 9 win squad.
It starts with Hack’s stats taking a back seat and Lynch moving into the driver’s seat.
Ryan J. Murphy is author of Ring The Bell: The Twenty-five Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives.